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More from David Instone-Brewer on divorce

Responding to John Piper and others.

From David Instone-Brewer:

While I am pleased that my article has provoked so much debate (for and against), it is unfortunate that much of this has centered on a particularly weak portion where, admittedly, it is possible to misunderstand my main message - that biblically, divorce is only allowed for serious and specific grounds. Unfortunately, some people have misunderstood the mention of emotional and physical neglect, believing that this refers to any minor infraction, which is utterly opposite to the conclusions I intended to convey.

John Piper (who is familiar with my work though he disagrees with the conclusions) has helpfully pointed out that this is a misunderstanding of my article, so I have written a blog thanking him for his input, as well as interacting with his interpretation. It is posted on my blog and after the jump.

John Piper has written a gracious and well-argued response to my article in Christianity Today. He criticizes my conclusions and outlines his own, non-traditional, interpretation of the texts, which I will respond to below. He also says that the article has been misunderstood by many readers, pointing out that it is easy to jump to the wrong conclusions if you read the article, without having read my books (which he knows well).

Many readers have misunderstood the article to say that divorce is allowed for any breaking of marriage vows by emotional or physical neglect. But what my research demonstrates is that both Jesus and Paul criticized no-fault divorce and taught that we should forgive the faults of our marriage partners. Jesus did, however, allow divorce if the marriage vows were broken with 'hardness of heart' – an Old Testament word meaning continuing, or stubborn, unrepentance. This means, in effect, that divorce is allowed for adultery, abandonment or abuse. I am glad to have the opportunity to put this important distinction across.

John Piper's own interpretation of the divorce passages is based on the view that porneia (Greek for 'sexual indecency') had a different meaning in first century Judaism, when it referred mainly to 'fornication' (i.e. sexual sin before marriage). This well-established theory was popularized a few decades ago by the Catholic scholar Murphy O'Connor, who found supporting evidence in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This interpretation is important for Catholic scholars because it means that Jesus did not allow any divorce after marriage has occurred – the same teaching that Piper supports.

This evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls was based on only one passage, a particularly difficult one, in the Damascus Document, which relies on the translation of the word zenut (the Hebrew equivalent of porneia) as "sex before marriage". Since O'Connor put forward this theory, however, other scrolls have been studied (especially the Temple Scroll) and most scholars have concluded that the early interpretations of this passage were mistaken, and that it was actually forbidding polygamy.

This does not mean that John Piper's non-traditional interpretation of porneia is wrong (it is still a possible interpretation that is waiting for more evidence), but it does mean that we do not now have much evidence that it can be translated this way. In fact, most scholars agree that porneia is a general term for sexual sin, as seen in the New Testament itself. It is used for visiting a prostitute (1 Cor.6.13-15, 18), incest (1 Cor.5.1), general sexual sin by a married person (1 Cor.7.2), use of cultic prostitutes (Rev.2.20-21) and the sin of the 'whore of Babylon' (Rev.17.2, 4; 18.3; 19.2) - though the most common meaning is 'sexual sin in general' (e.g. Acts 15.20; Eph.5.3; Col.3.5).

It is a pity that I wasn't clearer when I summarized my book in the CT article, but that is the danger of trying to say a great deal in few words. I'd like to thank John Piper for helping to set aside some of the misconceptions which resulted.

(Discuss below or on Instone-Brewer's blog. See also our earlier blog post on criticisms of the Instone-Brewer article.)

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